When the Republican, Christian governor of Louisiana writes a piece on race in America, you can be sure that liberals all over the internet will raise their pitchforks and torches.
But let’s not shut down Governor Bobby Jindal just yet. In a recent op-ed piece in Politico, Governor Jindal writes that while he feels America has ”lost its way in terms of morality,” the country has made significant progress in race relations since Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
“Yet we still place far too much emphasis on our ‘separateness,’ our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc.,” he laments. “We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.”
Perhaps Jindal’s wording could have been better — after all, placing emphasis on our race and heritage is what has made America as diverse and successful as it is today. The United States of America would not be the United States of America without its melting pot of languages, foods, music, fashion, and literature.
But a person’s identity is made up of several parts: his or her occupation, family and friends, hobbies and interests, and personality. Race is only a piece of that pie. There is nothing wrong with wanting to put it aside and imagine an America in which we just consider ourselves “Americans.”
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that America right now. Racial inequality still exists across the country, whether intentionally or not. Poverty is almost defined by skin color rather than actual income. The post-9/11 world has made Americans even more wary of people with darker skin. We live in an America in which you’re only truly considered an American — no hyphens or funny accents attached — if you’re white.
Governor Jindal may not have been the best person to write this piece, given his track record with his own state of Louisiana. The state is currently being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for its private school voucher system, the Louisiana Scholarship Program, under claims that it’s causing racial imbalances among school systems.
The program, implemented statewide in 2012, lets low-income students in public schools that have been given a letter grade of C, D, or F attend private schools through tax-funded vouchers. The Department of Justice is hoping to block the program for the 2014-2015 school year. They charged that "the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward integration."
But when has any politician been without controversial baggage? Putting aside Jindal’s own policies, his thoughts on race are still ones we should be considering carefully. There is some truth behind them.
I myself was born in America to Indian immigrants who moved here over 20 years ago. Whenever I’m asked about my background, I almost always reply, “I’m from New Jersey.” I’ve lived there my entire life. But almost always, I’m asked the inevitable follow-up question.
“No, but where are you really from?”
The same would not be asked of a young man who says he’s born and bred in Ohio but who is a first-generation child of Irish immigrants. Nor of the young woman who has lived her whole life in Oklahoma but whose great-grandparents hail from Greece. It wouldn’t occur to us to ask.
I’m very proud of my family background and I especially don’t mind answering that follow-up question, but this is truly an unfortunate side effect of our country’s diversity: the idea that those who do make America diverse can never really be considered American but rather only a “hyphenated American.” If changing that mentality means focusing less of our attention on what makes us different and more on what makes us the same, then perhaps that can be a positive step in changing the way we view race in our country.